As you may notice, the theme of my blog has changed. This is partly because I’ve decided that I want to read more classical novels (I study literature and sometimes it’s difficult to make myself read things for fun) and partly because I think that if you want to make yourself seem more cultured, there are few ways easier than reading literature. However, classical novels are basically the ones that have managed to stick around for fifty years – this does not necessarily mean that they are any good. If this is your problem, I am here for you – I hope to make these reviews as helpful as possible to let you know which classical works of fiction are enjoyable, which are simple to read and which are just plain boring.This year is the second century since Charles Dickens’ birth, and as you may have noticed it’s something of a big deal. Dickens is one of the great writers here in the UK, and I believe he also got big in America. However, he’s a bit of a diverse author, so I’m going to kickstart this blog with five of Dickens’ most famous novels. This week: Oliver Twist.
Oliver Twist was Dickens’ first proper novel, and it really shows. This is not to say that it’s a bad novel, just that there are a few glaring problems with it which Dickens manages to tone down a lot in his later works. But more on those later.
Let’s start with the positives. Oliver Twist is definitely an easy read. It’s also got a fairly gripping plot, although some of the descriptive scenes can bog it down a little. Although you’ll probably know the basics (Oliver is an orphan, expelled from the Workhouse for asking for more, goes to London and falls in with thieves etc), there are aspects to it that, even though I have read the book before, I forgot. Elements such as the mystery of Oliver’s origins should keep you pretty much engaged in the story.We also get treated to Dickens’ descriptive humour, which I for one really enjoy. For example, see this description of Mr Fang: “His face was stern, and much flushed. If he were really not in the habit of drinking rather more than was exactly good for him, he might have brought an action against his countenance for libel, and have recovered heavy damages.” Maybe it won’t make you laugh out loud, but it deserves a small chuckle.
The two major problems I had with Oliver were those of cheesiness and serious coincidences. The coincidences seem to recur in Dickens’s work, and there is no avoiding them. In Oliver, some of them are truly pointless. For example, a boy Oliver was bullied by in his home town comes to London and falls in with Fagin, the man who tried to turn Oliver a thief. Is there a point to him being the same boy from before? No. There is also a pretty major coincidence when, at the end, all is revealed, but you judge that for yourselves. Maybe it is just meant to touch the hearts of the Victorian public.
And talking of the Victorian public: why oh why did they seem to love it so much when the poor and unloved expressed their feelings in the sickliest terms possible? My main issue here comes with a young boy called Dick, who was baby farmed with Oliver. The boy, when he sees Oliver leaving, speaks of how he longs to die so that he can see God and the angels. This perspective is really not explained, given how the baby farmer is pretty violent and never taught the children about God, and really is just one of many examples in the novel of Dickens projecting his own thoughts on poverty onto a character.
Oliver Twist is a fairly good read. If you want something relatively light, with some truly evil villains and some of Dickens’ general feelings about the poor, this novel is for you. However, if you want something a little more nuanced, you’d be better off trying another one of his books.
Next Week: Great Expectations.